SHANTELL MARTIN CAN SAY with a certain amount of pride that she makes a living doodling with thick marker pens. The visual artist draws only in black ink, on anything and everything.
Her graffiti-esque prints have graced everything from sunglasses to sneakers, buildings to bottles. Even human skin, but we’ll save you the details. Scroll through her social media feed and it’s a glowing creative portfolio featuring the biggest names on the planet: Tiffany & Co, Max Mara, Kendrick Lamar and others.
Her art is childlike and relatable, and I sense a certain introspective quality to her pieces. We spoke while she was in Singapore to promote her latest collaboration with Puma shoes and apparel. Her wearable art is replete with her signature graphics — big sprawling words, ponderous faces and deceptively simple stick drawings.
The red carpet is rolled out for the queen of collaborations. She arrives on time, without much fanfare at the Puma Select Store at Marina Bay Sands. A flurry of activity unfolds around the celebrity, she hovers patiently in the background, hands casually tucked into her knee-length shorts.
The celebrity’s low-key mien is a contrast to her wild mane. She’s tucked a comb into a bun hidden beneath the curly mane swept to one side. The comb, I’ve read, comes in hand whenever she feels like brushing her trademark hairdo.
Our eyes meet from across the store, and she smiles. She walks over, pulls her hand out of her pocket, and hands me a name card sized sticker with the words “Are You You”.
One of the world’s most in-demand artist just handed me a piece of her artwork. I immediately question how I represent myself to others. Way to put me on the back foot, Shantell.
The most misunderstood thing about her art, she says, is that it’s simply, “black and white”. “There are so many other layers and mediums to my work. You just have to get to know it a little deeper.”
The artist’s playful illustrations are deceptively simple but serve a deeper purpose to provoke thought with words. Sometimes she explores issues of identity with signature phrases like, “Who are you?” , “Are you, you?”.
The probing questions stem from her own childhood experience. She once confessed to feeling like a bit of an outsider during her childhood days in London. She felt and looked different as the only biracial kid with five blonde half-siblings, living in a predominantly white, working class neighbourhood.
The optimistic lass rarely talks about her less than rosy childhood, but once told Parlour Magazine: “You can’t really be brown and English. (The culture stratification is) very subtle but keeps the lines drawn. That (environment) made me look overseas and out into the world to discover my own home.”
Drawing was a means of solace for the young Martin, and the hobby later evolved into a talent and handy party trick. She graduated with first-class honours from prestigious Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. Fresh out of school, she moved to Japan to teach English in 2003.
A friend invited her to draw live at an event in Tokyo, kickstarting her successful career as a visual jockey. The artist’s eclectic graphics would come alive on big screens at Tokyo nightclubs as she drew to the rhythm of the music.
Like a kitten who craved attention from shiny things, she gave up her fanbase, reputation and professional network in Tokyo after a visit to New York. She settled in the Big Apple in 2009. Without her support system in Tokyo, she had to stage her own live drawing performances.
At the shows, she would draw for and on audiences. She also staged exhibitions at friends’ spaces. Word spread and the New York’s Museum of Modern Art came knocking on her door, inviting her to do a live installation at a private event. In 2014, Martin held her first solo museum exhibition at MoCADA (The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) in Brooklyn. At an event, she led audiences to draw on anything from sneakers to themselves.
She would go on to defy the odds and conventions —infiltrating design, fashion, music spaces, and academia. She has been a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (Tisch School of the Arts). Her drawings formed the backdrop of a party scene of the TV series Gossip Girl.
Traditional art purists may turn up their noses at Martin’s popular culture crossovers, and graffiti-like drawings. Martin, though as down-to-earth as your friendly next door neighbour, is not shy of her achievements.
“I draw, I’m an artist who has had more than one solo museum show, has been a fellow at Columbia University, an Adjunct professor for many years at NYU, an invited visiting scholar at MIT Media Lab. I’ve have done multiple large public artworks and so on. The work and success speak for themselves. I’m not showing off, I’m simply amazed sometimes at how I’m managed to achieve all of this as far,” says Martin in a lilting English accent undimmed after a decade in America.
She never expected to make a living as an artist, a pursuit she thought was for the rich or the lucky. It isn’t pure luck that Martin is where she is today.
“If life does not give you a door, climb out a window. These are words I wrote when looking back at my life. There were literally times where as a kid I would jump on out my bedroom window to leave my home and get space. I realised that I have been doing this ever since, finding creative ways to overcome challenges. I’m totally still living by these words.”